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in England and Wales: by Alina Congreve
ccording to the government, hedgerows represent some of the most important habitats in lowland Britain (HMSO 1995). Despite the arrival of the Hedgerow Regulations, which were introduced in 1997 to protect important hedgerows little seems to have changed on the ground.
The Regulations were drawn up in response to the high rates of hedgerow removal that occurred in the 1980s. Between 1984 and 1993 185,000km of hedgerow in England and Wales was lost. This decline was not simply important in a British context but also in a European context. This is because hedged landscapes are found in relatively few areas: parts of northern France; northern Italy; the Austrian Alps and the Republic are Ireland. Hedges in England and Wales, like ponds, dry stone walls and small woodlands have lost their original economic value to many farmers with the decline in mixed farming. The Regulations require the farmer to notify the local council if he intends to remove a hedge. The council then has the opportunity to go and inspect the hedge to see if it meets the criteria for important hedges in the Regulations. If the Hedge meets the criteria in the Regulations the farmer is then legally obliged to retain the hedge. The Regulations include historical, ecological and archaeological criteria. There are however some problems.
Do the Regulations protect enough hedges?
All the criteria combined only protect about 20% of hedgerows from removal. This means that if a farmer wants to remove the other 80% he is free to do so. Hedges are important corridors for insects, small mammals and reptiles that will not cross a large open field. Removing 80% of the network would reduce the value of the remaining 20%.
Do the Regulations protect the right hedgerows?
Only hedges in farmland are protected so hedges in parkland and gardens are not protected. Hedges are also automatically disqualified if they are less than 30 years old. The ecological criteria in the Regulations primarily protect those hedges with large number of woody species. This approach is based on work by Hooper in the 1970s, who showed that the age of a hedge could be approximately determined by the number of wood species it contains. A hedge with an average of seven woody species per 30m will be about 700 years old. While most conservationists agree that biological diversity is desirable this approach ignores the considerable regional variation in hedges. On Exmoor the hedges are dominated by beech trees, those in North Dorset are mainly ash and box and those in Arden mainly holly. The Regulations do nothing to protect these hedges.
Are the Regulations protecting hedgerows
against all threats?
Work by the UK Biodiversity Steering Group points out that poor management such as ploughing very close to the hedge margin or very heavy pruning at the wrong time of year is leading to more hedges being lost than direct removal. These heavily trimmed hedges will not have nectar for insects in the spring or berries for birds in the autumn. The Regulations do nothing to protect against this threat.
Are they being used?
The local authorities are the bodies who have to enforce the Regulations, but they have been given no extra resources to carry out this task. The issue of extra staff time is important because Regulations are very time consuming to use in the field. In a survey of all local authorities in England, the Council for the Protection of Rural England found only 19% of local authorities found them easy to use. Because of their complexity local authorities are not going out and pro-actively surveying hedges. This means when a farmer does apply for permission to remove a hedge, a survey will often be done at a time of year when ecological surveys give poorer results. Developers also appear unwilling to expend the time and effort in surveying hedges according to the Regulations. In Environmental Impact Assessments carried out since 1997 the Regulations are often referred to but survey work has not been carried out to see if the hedges meet the criteria.
The Regulations could be modified to protect more hedges. The simplest way to do this would be to reduce the number of wood species that give automatic protection from seven to four or five. This would still leave other problems with the Regulations unresolved. Other survey methods, such as the one developed by the Field Studies Council could give a better indication of which hedges to protect.
• Microsoft Excel version of a sample hedge recording sheet.
About the author.The author carried out an ecological survey of an 800 ha area of Hertfordshire as part of an MSc in Conservation. This included surveying 138 hedgerows using three different survey methods on each hedge; the National Vegetation Classification, the Field Studies Council Method and the Hedgerow Regulations. These are not yet available on line because they are awaiting publication in a journal. The author has carried out training courses for local environmental groups in hedgerow protection. The project generated a large database of ecological data about hedges. The author would like to hear from anyone who is interested in further work on the database or is interested in training courses. The author is currently carrying out full time teaching and research in the Geography Department of Kings College London.
See also the Naturenet page about Hedgerows.